Yesterday, I listened to someone say, "how nice it is to know one's self," before relating some kind of laundry list of the happy comforts of material existence (which only a fool would dispute, but I am increasingly finding it prudent for such speakers to at least add a note of the enigmatic). I thought to myself, if the words from that banter were to be cut into strips, there would be no way to put them together again. They would make good confetti. And I marvelled at how the riddled notion of self-knowledge, the warning of γνῶθι σεαυτόν, had so quickly turned into the greeting one might find in a Hallmark card.
This morning, as I was trying, unsuccessfully it turns out, to find a reference to an ancient practice of looking into glass to see reflections of the future (something like scrying), I skimmed through "The Temples and Gods of Athens," in A Day in Old Athens, and found a golden passage about how precisely the less tangible aspects of humanity did not appeal to the 4BCE masses (like the masses today?):
"The average intelligent citizen probably has views midway between the stupid rabble and the daring philosophers ... They punish crime and reward virtue ... This is the morality taught by the master tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, and accepted by the best public opinion at Athens; for the insidious doubts cast by Euripides upon the reality of any divine scheme of governance have never struck home. The scandalous stories about the domestic broils in Olympus, in which Homer indulges, only awake good-natured banter.In short, most of the better class of Athenians are genuinely 'religious'; nevertheless they have too many things in this human world to interest them to spend overmuch time in adjusting their personal concepts of the deity to any system". (I wished to cite this in full also because it is sure to resonate with the insightful analysis of a Euripides play on one of Tom Matrullo's blogs).
Regarding there not being time for insidious doubts, one wonders if it is such lack of self-reflection that denies the construction of a proper metaphysical system: the microcosm in disarray, the macrocosm, likewise. "How nice it is to know one's self" the man says, equating this with an earth offering out her fruits to the man, like a supermarket. No mention of the problems of paradox or the clever wit of the judge-in-disguise as we may find in 狄公案. The Dutch translator of these stories, Robert van Gulik, writes: "Chinese magistrates like Judge Dee were men of great moral strength and intellectual power, and at the same time refined literati, thoroughly conversant with Chinese arts and letters. In short a kind of man, whom one would like to know better."
Gulik "hopes" that Judge Dee relaxed like the other famous men of succeeding dynasties, depicted in wood cuts, "Stretched out on a pantherskin, an informal cap on his head ... [reading] works ... where the deepest wisdom is expressed in humourous little parables, or some minor histories, written in a light vein, and describing the complicated intrigues in the official world of bygone times. A graceful coral tree in a craquelé vase gives rest to the eye, and fragrant smoke curls up from the incense burner." Doubts, the insight of self-reflection, are met here with pithy insights of reflection on man and - a hint in a book proves applicable to the case, a dream supplies hidden clues to past events: 求簽, divination wherein a tube of numbered thin, flat strips of bamboo are shaken until one falls out, and the corresponding entry is read from a book based on the 古文經, the Book of Changes. I choose this illustration because surely one wishes for one's judge to be kowledgeable of the human character and its paradoxes; surely one wishes for the judge to be a good person.
Such are not the parameters of the average person. To return to Stearns Davis' Athens,"'Who,' asks Cicero, who can speak for both Greeks and Romans in this particular, 'ever thanked the gods that he was a good man? Men are thankful for riches, honor, safety ... We beg of the sovran God [only] what makes us sage, sound, rich, and prosperous'". Granted, wisdom, in part judgement, is acknowledged - but what are they without goodness? (NB. I did not look into the full context of that quotation.) I am reminded again of Sir Arthur Helps' description of the vulture-like literary biographers who take personal correspondence out of context and confuse the image of the man, torturing him if he is still alive (30-32). How the details of a life could give the wrong picture, but the correctly chosen single anecdote could shed immense light on a whole work (17-19 - sad these examples are not cited with more regularity). The man is not examined for his goodness; the man is consequently less thankful for his goodness than he hastens towards the things of wealth.
I was reminded of the Sixth Elegy by Tibullus written in defense of love to a soldier who, like many Roman noblemen of the time, thinks himself above it, preferring instead the gold that was won through war. I like so much how the poet hastens to 'war' to defend love, imitating those more material soldiers, even though "This iron age approves his sway no more. All fly to camps for gold, and gold adore. ... The soldier hopes, by martial spoils, to gain / Flocks without number, and a rich domain / His hopes obtain'd by every horrid crime, / He seeks for marble in each foreign clime". But it is the last verse that I read again and again.
"In Gold! alas! the venal Fair delight! / Since Beauty fights for Spoil, for Spoil I'll fight! / In all my Plunder Nemesis shall shine, / Yours be the Profit, be the Peril mine: / To deck your heavn'ly Charms the Silk-worm dies, / Embroidery labours, and the Shuttle flies! / For you be rifled Ocean's pearly Store! / To you Pactolus send his golden Ore! / Ye Indians! blacken'd by the nearer Sun, / Before her Steps in splendid Liveries run; / For you shall wealthy Tyre and Afric vie, / To yield the Purple, and the Scarlet Dye."
I love the geography of these, here, deeply tragic things, and if you are a regular reader you know my personal affinity to the cost of the silk worm to the garment, "Silk-worm dies ... and the Shuttle flies!" Depicted as so powerfully insensitive to the thing of beauty.
We return to Athens where we see a statue of Athena Foremost in Battle, the Athena Promachos, "wrought by Phidias out of the spoils of Marathon." So it is that the wealth of one land is plundered - erased - melted down into чужой - the single word that means 'someone else's' but also 'alien, strange, foreign' - foreign to itself, the materials are reshaped into someone else's image. The word is more than ξένος, it is κάποιου άλλου, ενός άλλου. It comes from Proto-Slavic ťōďь, a curious refashioning of the German word for 'vernacular' or 'of the people' (see Theodiscus). It is the things - and the language - that attest to the doubts we might want to have about ourselves, our intentions, the way life appears to us.
Is it an accident that the things in the Tibullus elegy and the things that were refashioned to make Athena Promachos were the spoils of war? Helps writes, "Those who support startling paradoxes in society, must expect severe treatment. By the articles of war, the conquerors never spare those who maintain indefensible positions."
The paradox is problematic and, perhaps obviously, may not be for the masses if the intellect is not nurtured - like Judge Dee's, who in our imaginary woodcut reads laconic works in a room with an elaborate vase. But the paradox, here adopted as a symbol of complexity spurred by the uncertainties that raise questions that may lead to truth, is valuable to the society seeking the essence of goodness, beyond its mere appearance which may be άλλου in the sense the word appears in the Odyssey, meaning 'other than what is, untrue' : ἄλλα παρὲξ εἴποιμι παρακλιδόν, οὐδ᾽ ἀπατήσω, (4.348); I will not swerve aside to speak of other things, nor will I deceive thee.
The hallmark is a stamp used to indicate the purity of a metal, issued in the 19th century at London's Goldsmith Hall. So much attention to that form of gold and its purity. But of man's? It may be a mark of his otherness if he cares too much about such arguably invisible standards.